Mick O'Shea's saloon, North Charles Street, Friday night. The Guinness is flowing, thick and black as tar. The college students at the bar are working hard on their buzz, and the older people at the tables are picking at their salads and gazing wistfully at the kids, perhaps remembering a time when they, too, could do Absolut shooters without ending up on the couch for the next two days.
On the cramped stage, the Irish band O'Malley's March is playing a gentle ballad full of exuberance, hope and longing for the auld sod.
Well, maybe not:
You're a bum, you're a punk
You're an old slut on junk.
Lying there in the drip,
Nearly dead in the bed.
This is being delivered by lead singer Martin O'Malley. This would be the same Martin O'Malley who sits on the Baltimore City Council with all the restraint of an ax splintering through a door. Given that he's just come here from his day job, he must feel as if he's entered a parallel universe.
As he bites off each lyric, the crowd sings along with gusto to this cover of Shane MacGowan's "Fairy Tale of New York."
MacGowan was the brilliant lead singer of the Irish punk band the Pogues until they kicked him out for being an "irresponsible drunk" -- apparently to differentiate him from the responsible drunks who still consider it bad form to pass out on stage.
Moments later, O'Malley's March begins a listless version of "Black Velvet Band," a tune every Irish band is practically required by law to do. The first four lines feel as musty as the doilies at your granny's house:
And her eyes, they shone like the diamonds
You'd swear she was queen of the land.
And her hair hung over her sho-o-o-ulders
Tied up with a black velvet band.
Gradually O'Malley's voice trails off, as if he's overcome with ennui. The music stops. Then, in possibly the worst Elvis imitation ever heard, he mutters: "That don't do nothin' for me."
Whereupon the band -- bass guitarist Bob Baum, drummer Jamie Wilson, piper Paul Levin, trombonist Jared Denhard and O'Malley on acoustic guitar -- suddenly kicks into some sort of driving, Celtic-boogie version of the same song that soon has the joint rocking out big-time.
In many ways, the two songs represent the essence of O'Malley's March and Martin O'Malley, the city councilman from northeast Baltimore who, on this chilly spring evening, is wearing jeans, boots and a black sleeveless T-shirt and looks more like a clean-cut Springsteen than someone you'd call about a pothole.
When people call O'Malley a politician, spitting the word at him like an obscenity, he replies: "I'm not a politician, I'm a reformer."
And here at Mick O'Shea's, O'Malley is engaged in one of his favorite reformation projects: putting a different face on traditional Irish music.
"What we're trying to do is make Irish music accessible without hurting its integrity," is how he explains it. "The fun part is, yeah, it's traditional [Irish] music if you did it without the drums and the electric bass going on beneath it. But then some people, especially younger people would say: 'OK, we've heard this before. Now let's get the hell out of here.'"
O'Malley admits that too much of traditional Irish music sounds "like taking a cat and beating it against the wall."
"We want to keep telling the stories, keep telling the history, keep the music alive," he says. "[But] make it accessible to a wide range of audiences."
To that end, O'Malley's March plays music difficult to categorize, although O'Malley grudgingly defines it as "Celtic folk rock."
It's not the electric heresy of the Pogues or the dark, pulsating edginess of Black 47. But it's not the traditional jigs and reels of the Chieftains or the lilting ballads of the Clancy Brothers or Christy Moore, either.
And it's damn sure not the music of your average City Council member. Because your average City Council member does not unwind from a 14-hour day by slapping Sinead O'Connor's "The Famine" on the CD player and grooving along to her haunting rap of British cruelty during the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s:You see, Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoesAll the other food -- meat, fish, vegetablesWere shipped from the country under armed guardTo England, while the Irish people starved.
Reformers are often given to grand gestures that signal their intentions. Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Gandhi led hundreds of followers on a 200-mile march to the sea to protest the Salt Acts.
For O'Malley's March, a bar band that's been together for four years, their grand gesture was this: Each man reached hard into his pocket and came up with $6,000 to go into the studio and record their first CD.
The result was "Celtic Fury," released this spring to some local critical acclaim and encouraging sales. It features an eclectic mix of traditional songs given a contemporary feel, plus three original songs written by O'Malley and a slow melody featuring the Uilleann pipes written by Paul Levin.
In addition to the tricked-out jigs and reels, the CD contains songs of love, songs of immigration and songs of rebellion stirring enough to get the boyos thrusting their pints in the air and cursing Oliver Cromwell's soul.
Although as the first set at Mick O'Shea's draws to a close and the din grows louder and the haze of cigarette smoke hangs in the air as if a crop-duster just passed overhead, Bob Baum, the amiable 44-year-old bass guitarist, reveals another essential ingredient for the band's continued success.
"The more you drink," laughs Baum, "the better we sound. So have another Guinness. We sound like Pavarotti after three sets."
To many, Martin O'Malley seems ideally suited to the role of reformer, almost as if he were born for the job.
He is 34, tall, leading-man handsome, with a Chiclets smile that seems to make his face glow. Now in his second term as an elected official, he's articulate, passionate, charismatic in a Kennedyesque way. He's also considered something of a loose cannon at City Council meetings, where the sight of him rising from his chair and clearing his throat causes half the room to lean forward in anticipation.
At times, you're almost waiting for a teleprompter to light up with the word "Showtime!" as O'Malley launches into a fresh harangue. A political ally of council president Lawrence Bell, he's been a strong advocate of crime prevention and a relentless critic of police commissioner Thomas Frazier. He's also made a name for himself ferreting out Housing Authority misdeeds and fighting tax increases in the city.
An Irish Catholic and liberalish Democrat with a private law practice, O'Malley is also fired by the Jesuit dictum to make a difference in this world.
And he's admittedly ambitious. As the son-in-law of Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran Jr. (he's married to Katie Curran, and the couple have two young daughters and another child on the way), he'd no doubt enjoy the support of Baltimore's old-line Irish political clubs should he attempt to pursue a higher office. The clubs no longer exert the influence they once did in a majority-black city, but you take your support where you can get it.
The bottom line on Martin O'Malley's political career is this: Few expect him to be content with a City Council seat for long. And O'Malley, who does not exactly run in the opposite direction when someone sticks a microphone in his face, does nothing to dampen such speculation.
"I've been asked by reporters: 'Some people say you'd like to be police commissioner, some people say you're running for state's attorney, some people say you're running for Congress.'I'd like to be all those things, and I'd like to be governor, too.
"I think I've made a difference in the council," he says. "[But] there comes a time when you start to realize the limits of any job you have. ... And I'm starting to realize the limits of how much I can [effect] change as a City Council member. And that has me looking to do something else, where I can make a bigger difference."
As that sentence hangs in the air, O'Malley studies his hands for a moment, then returns to his favorite subject: reform.
"I'm much more motivated [about] change than I am about power," he says softly. "Unfortunately, it requires power to make change."
O'Malley the Reformer was first exposed to Irish music growing up in Bethesda. When he was young, his parents listened to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. His mother made him learn the Clancys' terminally sappy "The Wild Colonial Boy," about a Robin Hood-like immigrant who robbed the rich and helped the poor.
And he remembers being dragged with his brothers and sisters to hear the Clancys and Maken every year, "all of us in our white, Hong Kong-made Irish sweaters."
But it was not until he arrived at Gonzaga High School in Washington and fell under the spell of a madman named Danny Costello that the music began to move Martin O'Malley.
Costello, O'Malley's junior varsity football coach, had a habit of psyching himself up for games by blasting Irish rebel songs.
"Who are these guys?" O'Malley asked one game day as the music blared and Costello worked himself into his usual lather.
"The Wolf Tones," Costello replied.
O'Malley started listening to these stirring ballads of uncompromising rebels and life in the notorious Ulster prison of Long Kesh. He was riveted by the song "The Men Behind the Wire," a street anthem sung after the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry in 1972, when 13 civil-rights demonstrators were killed by British troops.
In no time at all, he was hooked on this wild, wonderful new sound, so different from the staid Irish music of his youth.
He bought his first Wolf Tones record. He bought a tin whistle and learned to play. And he started devouring tomes on Irish history to better understand the stories behind the music.
This is what he learned: The Celts dominated Irish culture for 1,000 years, but then Ireland was besieged, with varying degrees of savagery, by the Vikings, Normans, Tudor Protestants, Oliver Cromwell and the British Crown in general.
Under the penal laws instituted in the late 17th century, Catholics were forbidden to vote, join the army or hold public office. Catholic priests were hanged, drawn and quartered if they were caught celebrating Mass.
Ireland did not become a fully independent republic until 1949. And nationalists still seethe over the injustices against Catholics in the six northern counties of Ulster, the British-gerrymandered state and site of the continuing violent discontent known euphemistically as "The Troubles."
O'Malley began to seethe with them. While still in high school, he hooked up with the musical prophet Costello and another fellow to form his first band, the Shannon Tide, which might have been the worst Irish band in history. They knew 20 songs, period.
In the movie "The Commitments," the story of a fame-starved, working-class Irish band, there is a wonderful scene where the band's organizer is interviewing potential musicians from among hellish collection of biker riff-raff, nose-studded, heavy-metal freaks and whacked-out Dublin matrons with shaved heads.
To each, in a voice that manages to be both terribly earnest and terribly condescending, he poses this question: "Who're yer in-flu-ences, then?"
Imagine Martin O'Malley answering this question back in the Reagan days of the early '80s. His pals are into Springsteen and U2 and Dire Straits. The punk movement is still vibrant; metal still has its adherents.
But when asked what music makes his pulse quicken, O'Malley holds up his tin whistle and answers: "The Wolf Tones."
Even the hard-core Irish pub crawlers probably thought he was a bit off. Good jaysis! What's wrong with the lad?
O'Malley played bar gigs with the Shannon Tide until joining the first Gary Hart presidential campaign as a volunteer and leaving for Iowa in 1984 to work as a district organizer.
By 1987, at the tender age of 24, O'Malley had become Hart's national field director. But when Hart's campaign did a Donna Rice crash-and-burn that year, O'Malley found himself burned out and disillusioned.
Worse, he was a man without a cause again.
He tried to rededicate himself to law school. He also traded in his tin whistle for a guitar and plunged back into Irish music with a vengeance.
He played solo for a year. Then, two significant events occur in his life: He hooks up with Paul Levin, "the Piper from Pikesville," in the first incarnation of O'Malley's March.
And two years later, at the age of 28, he wins a seat on the Baltimore City Council.
Here at Mick O'Shea's, O'Malley's March is into a frenetic second set that ranges from a Christy Moore ballad ("Welcome to the Cabaret") to traditional bar songs ("The Wild Rover," "Mary Mac") to a Shane MacGowan diatribe ("Thousands Are Sailing") to a Van Morrison classic ("Brown-Eyed Girl.")
This is a band that sings of the breadth of the Irish experience: love, war, family, hope, longing, poverty, carousing, the Catholic Church. But where O'Malley exudes the most passion, where his powerful tenor voice seems to soar, are on those songs that deal with injustice. Injustice always inflames reformers.
Perhaps the best number on the band's new CD is "Streets of Baltimore," an O'Malley original with a rollicking beat that belies its dark themes.
It's about the blight that wiped out the Irish potato crop of 1845 and lasted three years, about the 1 million or more Irish who starved to death, about the 2 million who emigrated in order to live, about all the other crops that sat in grain houses waiting to be shipped to England while the people literally died in the streets.
O'Malley stresses that this is not some revisionist air-brushing of history. Sinead O'Connor might be a flaming nutcase on some things, but O'Malley says she gets it exactly right when she rasps of that terrible time: "There was no famine!"
O'Malley adopts a similarly accusing tone in the opening lyrics of "Streets of Baltimore":
L To work the land from dawn to dusk was father's highest goal
And I set myself to do the same when the dear Lord took his soul
But the land we worked was not our own and the fruit of my two hands
Was carted off to England to suit the landlord's plan.
By the black year '47, the landlord's game was plain
Starvation was the rent we'd pay in a country filled with grain
'Mid sobs of crying children, we left the shamrock shore
And traded desperation for the hope of Baltimore.
O'Malley has it figured like this: If you sing in an Irish band and you can't get worked up over the Irish diaspora, you can't get worked up about anything.
It's late now at Mick O'Shea's and the crowd has thinned considerably. As O'Malley's March wraps up its third set, the twentysomethings at the bar all look pretty well hammered, and the middle-aged folks left at the tables are starting to yawn and look at their watches.
Suddenly the band launches into an old Paul McCartney tune: "Give Ireland Back to the Irish." McCartney wrote it at a young age, but didn't release it until 1973 and "Bloody Sunday," when British troops fired their guns and blood ran in the streets of Derry, and a hot rage swept the land.
The song shot to the top of the charts in Ireland. It was banned in England by the BBC.
As O'Malley shouts out the words now, the sweat trickling down his face, the veins in his neck sticking out, it's not so much a song, but a demand.
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don't make them have to take it away.
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today!
At the bar, fists are clenched and pints of Guinness are thrust into the air, and eyes that were cloudy seem somehow clearer and more purposeful.
The bouncer does a mad little jig in the aisle, and up on the stage, Martin O'Malley smiles beatifically.
The Reformer has done his job, at least for one more night.